Movie Review: Ricki and the Flash
By Ben Gruchow
August 13, 2015

Yes, that *is* Rick Springfield. Scary, I know.

Meryl Streep is genuinely striking in Ricki and the Flash. Usually dressed in black, with heavy makeup, punk-rock hairstyle, and a gravelly, roughened voice, she’s the least surprising thing about the movie by being the most surprising thing. That the character she creates is vivid and believable is indicative of an actress invested in going all the way, but that’s well-known as Streep’s method. She plays Ricki Rendazzo, lead singer of a California bar band who’s called to Indiana by her ex-husband when their daughter breaks down after a nasty divorce. Streep’s greatest asset (her ability to effectively mimic just about any nationality, regional dialect, background, you name it) complements the character arc, and her greatest liability (that she mimics so well that her performances are sometimes impressions in search of a character) feeds into Ricki just as readily.

The movie around Streep isn’t bad, either, although it’s late to the party. Actually, that’s understating it; the first act of Ricki and the Flash seems to go to some length to avoid accidentally ginning up any energy or much reason to care about the characters or story. This is mostly down to a fairly ridiculous amount of posturing by the cast: there have been nasty divorces and moody children, but rarely has there been a character as fiercely non-functional as Mamie Gummer’s Julie. This individual can’t be bothered to get dressed to go out to a formal dinner. The extremism of Julie’s depression, as it’s depicted, distracts from each scene it appears in, and it appears in a lot.

The low point is that dinner sequence, which also introduces us to Ricki’s two sons and a few others. It’s an agonizingly protracted scene that seemingly exists only to have every character verbalize a single assigned personality trait and run it into the ground. It’s a good example of how something that reads appropriately on the page sinks or swims based on an actor’s handling. Here, it sinks; there’s visibly an effort early in the film to draw a straight line between Julie’s divorce and her sense of abandonment by her mother, but it’s overshadowed by the showiness of the acting.

There are other false notes: an altercation between Julie’s parents and her own ex-husband feels misplaced (fair is fair, though: Streep still sells Ricki’s parting shot). At other times, the movie seems to forget that while Ricki is perhaps a little emotionally damaged, she’s not the destructive person certain scenes make her out to be. The screenplay may set this up as a somewhat accurate reflection of a woman who thinks she doesn’t know how to offer the proper support to another person, and therefore doesn’t even try, but it doesn’t make for much of a personal anchor to grab onto. We don’t get much of a sense of who Ricki is, despite her appearance in every scene, and so Ricki and the Flash just drifts for a good chunk of its running time. It’s also choppily edited at points; there’s a cut from a phone conversation in a grocery store to the exterior of an apartment complex that momentarily takes us out of whatever’s happening in the story because we’re trying to regain our bearings.

But then, right around the 45- to 50-minute mark, a funny thing happens. Ricki finds herself in a conversation with Audra MacDonald’s Maureen, as Pete’s current wife. The conversation starts off about how you’d expect; the movie’s been coasting on middling drama for an hour by now, and we’re ready for the final slide down into mediocrity… and then the tone of the scene changes. Not significantly; there’s plenty of opportunity to resume its downward trajectory afterward. But it doesn’t - and from that moment through the next 40-odd minutes, Ricki and the Flash rapidly pulls itself together. Scenes spark with a confidence they didn’t have. Motivations and mentality become clearer, but also deeper; the movie turns out to have something to say about parents and the ratio of give-to-take with their children, and the characters themselves become more effective and affectionately drawn. Most important, it develops a clean way to dramatize its final arc.

How much of this turnaround is supported by the earlier scenes, I’m not entirely sure. I don’t think that we’re witnessing a story maintain its same rhythm and urgency while we just happened to tune in at a certain point; the first half of the movie is too patched together for that. I think it took until the pivotal scene between the two mother figures for Diablo Cody (she of Juno and Young Adult - also movies where it took us a while to latch onto the main characters, and I think we can all forget about Jennifer’s Body), to figure out exactly what she’d been meaning to say.

This crystallizes in a pair of back-to-back scenes: in the first, Streep gives us a nicely tense little moment on stage where she rambles about the price women pay for being the mother, and you can see her fight against loss of control and just barely win. In the second, we get some more straightforward clarity on her state of mind. It’s to Streep’s credit, and to the writing and directing, that this moment is so full of dialogue that’s pretty on-the-nose and yet comes off natural and graceful.

The movie doesn’t really step wrong for its remainder. Having presumably figured out what kind of visual story he wants to tell, director Jonathan Demme starts to give us images and scenes that are somewhat more ambitious. There is a sequence where Ricki realizes that a particular guitar has been sold, and the subtle emotions that flicker over Streep’s face as she wordlessly figures out the reason why is a blessing to the concept that a movie can show us just as easily as telling us. And the movie builds to a wedding set piece that does just about everything right; each of the characters and relationships are given the proper treatment.

Where does this leave us as far as Ricki and the Flash as a whole? It’s not a great movie; the existence of more than half the film as middling-to-mediocre ensures that. Truth be told, I’m not even sure that I can in conscience call it a particularly good movie.

Here’s what I do know: The reversal the movie pulls in those final 45 minutes is significant, and it has the nice effect of giving texture and meaning to some of the more intolerable aspects of the first half. The movie closes far stronger than it opens, and I left the theater feeling like I had witnessed an actual story with human characters, with no arbitrary characters or actions, and no series of sketches or vignettes. The more that matters to you, the better your mileage will be.